Ecological Engineering— interpretation of hydrogeochemical observations in a sulphide tailings deposit
This paper is based on data generated between October, 1986 and October, 1989, during the implementation of an Ecological Engineering close-out for a zinc mine in Northern Ontario, where 690 000 tonnes of tailings contain 41.1% pyrite and 4.1% pyr-rhotite. The objective was to determine rates of sulphide oxidation and iron precipitation in the tailings. Those rates are relevant for the assessment of the long-term effectiveness of biological systems employed in the removal of heavy metals from contaminated drainage issuing from tailings.
Data were collected on the topography and stratigraphy of the tailings basin, subsurface temperatures and groundwater levels, and chemical analyses were made of water samples collected from a number of piezometers. The thickness of unsaturated tailings varied widely between individual piezometer locations; annual maxima ranged from 0.67 m to 3.55 m, and annual minima from 0 to 2.68 m. Sulphate concentrations ranged from 36 mg/L to 20 180 mg/L; iron concentrations from 0.36 mg/L to 9938 mg/L; and zinc concentrations from 0.33 mg/L to 1123 mg/L.
The geochemistry of the piezometer samples suggests that some of the initial Fe content, resulting from metal sulphide oxidation, is subsequently precipitated in the tailings pile and, possibly, in the underlying unconsolidated sediments, probably in the form of iron-hydroxide and Na-jarosite. Other metals such as Zn may be co-precipitated with Fe. The discharge of a portion of these metals to the environment would be delayed by this process. Some of the initial sulphate may also be lost from solution, probably by precipitation of gypsum; approximate saturation degrees for gypsum ranged from-3.27 to +0.47. The precipitated minerals will somewhat decrease the porosity and permeability of the tailings.
Sulphide-oxidation rates, calculated using the analytical results and the estimated amount of annual recharge at the tailings site, average 0.0057 mol/kg/yr. Calculated iron-precipitation rates average 0.000386 mol/kg/yr. It is concluded that the characteristics of seepage from mining wastes may change with time, reflecting the solubilization of precipitated secondary minerals.